Chris Farrell: Boomers and millennials share goals and bonds

I was a guest lecturer recently at an advanced undergraduate finance class at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The students were impressive in their research, their questions and in their internships. The topic for the day was how to think about industry trends and economic forecasting when studying prospects for a particular company. I have no doubt that these students will do extremely well when launched on their careers.

I thought about those students as I read the results of a survey, “Work in Retirement: Myths and Motivations, Career Reinventions and the New Retirement Workscape,” a Merrill Lynch study conducted with Age Wave, the consulting firm.

The results took on what it called four popular myths about aging workers:

• The idea that retirement means the end of work (not!).

• That retirement is a time of decline (no).

• That people work in retirement because they need the money (true, but they also work for meaning).

• And that new career ambitions are only for young people (wrong).

“For most, working in retirement is not simply more of the same,” the report noted. “In fact, many see retirement as a chance to try something new and even pursue career dreams they were unable to explore during their pre-retirement years.”

Change some of the words in those sentences, and it would capture the drive and the idealism of the Eau Claire students and their recently graduated peers elsewhere. Despite a cottage industry profiting from stoking the notion of intergenerational conflict, far more unites than divides 20-somethings and 60-somethings, especially when it comes to jobs and careers. Most young adults are idealistic when they start out, eager to land a job that offers both an income and meaning. The same spirit motivates many aging boomers.

“Rather than preparing to leave the ­workforce, the shift into the years stretching out between midlife and anything resembling traditional retirement or old age entails a period of preparation for a new stage of personal meaning and productive ­contribution,” writes Marc Freedman, founder and chief executive of the nonprofit organization Encore.org. (Freedman’s insight comes from a series of thoughtful essays collected by Paul Irving in “The Upside of Aging: How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy and Purpose.’’

Of course, transitions aren’t easy when you’re young or senior or anywhere in between. Change is often painful and (usually) costs money. For boomers, much of the national conversation about aging and retirement has been about savings and investing. The classic, haunting question has been, “What is my number?”

Savings matters, of course. But increasingly the central question of retirement planning is “How can I give back and also earn an income?”

Many aging workers are starting to think about retirement as a time for engaging in another kind of job, earning a paycheck (often a slim one) but still engaged in something that ignites their passion for living. Just as we advise young people graduating from college to network, to ask lots of questions and to experiment at jobs, so should aging ­boomers pursue essentially the same exercise but this time as part of their “retirement” planning. The outcome of thinking this way has a profound impact on personal finances in the senior years.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for “Marketplace ­Money.” His e-mail is cfarrell@mpr.org.

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